Criteria For Building
A Powerful Machine

For Graphics Workstations to Web Servers

circa 1994-2000

[Reformatted for HTML5: 29 December 2017]


This was the checklist I gave people running Linux and FreeBSD.

The philosophy originated back when I was a CAD consultant in the late 1980’s. As components became more of a commodity, the rules grew into what they are today.

(For Macintosh fans, some of this might not apply. This is due to the lack of third party suppliers of motherboards. Even Motorola seems to have backed away from the commodity markets now.)

If you’re just looking for cheap comuters to get onto the ‘net, none of this applies to you.

Consider only what you need for the next six months

Most likely, the technology and prices will change faster than your needs.

The exceptions to this are at the high-end workstation market and the wanna-be high-end folks. You know who you are: you probably have more RAM in your machines than some file servers' disk capacity.

Look for features which you know you’ll need within one year

You probably know you’re going to grow with a machine. Make sure you can add elements which you know you’ll eventually need.

Only get gear which may be upgraded

Consider the CPU as disposable

Overclock it, burn it out, and replace it every few months.

(This might not work with newer processor modules.)

Motherboards are the next most disposable items

Expect to replace it at least yearly.

(DEC/Compaq ALPHA and PowerPC Macintosh use standard boards conforming to the ATX form factor now.)

Get only as fast of CPU as you need for next 3-6 months

To get anything faster, you are probably paying too much.

If you have a legitimate need for the fastest CPU (for CAD, graphics, simulation, etc) then the choice is made for you.

Get as much RAM as you can afford, at the cost of downgrading the CPU

Get at least 3-4 times what is recommended for the OS and/or applications you want.

(Most people who know about this document are fans of Free, Open Source Unix and/or software developers. As of 1998, this should be 128 MB or more, depending upon whether the machine will be a network slave or a workstation with a windowing system. Add more memory for my fellow Emacs fans. Add more for large scale Java development.)

Get RAM which is merely fast enough

Today’s memory won’t work on tomorrow’s motherboards efficiently, so why waste the money? Spend the extra cash to get more quantity of memory.

Get a good chassis

Select a case which is RF (radio frequency) shielded and easy to work with.

The Enlight cases are highly recommended. Most vendors of mainboards carry these cases.

Consider industrial “lunchbox” cases. These are handy for transport since they are basically a minitower case with a large LCD screen built into the side.

Use only PCI devices

This was significant in mid-1990’s.

Avoid the ISA bus at all costs because it effectively slows down the system bus when activated, unless your motherboard has buffers for each bus.

Use only SCSI disks and controllers

IDE/EIDE/ATAPI/UDMA, etc, are slow and can’t handle contemporary multi-threaded, multi-processing OSs well. After all, these are technologies rooted in MFM and RLL from the mid-1980’s.

(It is admirable how the IDE engineers have been able to perpetuate the base MFM and RLL specifications from the mid-1980’s. Unfortunately, it’s still not good enough for high performance workstations or servers. This is because of backwards compatibility. This is an inherently single-threaded technology.)

Fortunately, SCSI’s original specification offered more to work with in terms of future expansion.

There may be alternatives coming with FireWire and USB. Then again, we were told to expect that we’d be using Fibre Channel in our workstations by the mid 1990’s– as stated in the early ninties. Take a wait-and-see approach towards these for talking to primary disks. For example, it is known that USB can be as much as a 10-15% drain on your CPU; conversely, SCSI controllers have their own processors, thus minimize CPU overhead.

(The USB-to-SCSI adaptors might be ok because the USB channel is used for i/o and does not bother the CPU with protocol issues.)

Stick with SCSI for talking to disks.

Always get the latest spec of SCSI when buying controllers

This guarantees compatibility with next few years of disks.

For example, my SCSI-2 Fast+Wide controllers were purchased in 1994 and still can handle the latest drives at decent capacity. I think I had to pay an extra $100 for the Wide channel, but it was well worth it in the long run.

Installing FreeBSD on that 486dx2/80 with SCSI-2 is faster than my Dell Lattitude (PII/300) notebook since the laptop has only UDMA disks. For compiling the kernel, I use the 486 as a file server and it’s sufficiently fast.

Personal workstations, UltraSCSI (non-wide) should be fine.

High-end workstations or servers, use Ultra2 WIDE (or higher).

Heavy-duty servers should use RAID.

Get only slightly more disk space than you need

You can always add another, larger disk later when the prices fall.

Then use the old (slower) disk as archival, on-line storage.

Plan to get an external SCSI case with lots of room

External disk cases should have 4 bays minimum.

Consider multiple cases:

As you get newer drives, move older disks into an external case.

As you get newer devices (e.g., removables), get internal versions which are cheaper and put them in the external case.

Since most people power down their workstations at night, then you only need to turn on the external case on those days when you know you need those devices– saves on electric bill and wear+tear.

For web servers and file servers, you might want to keep all your disks in external cases. The separate chassis and fans will help keep everything cooler. Besides, those “server” CPU cases cost too much, so just get a regular ATX case and an external scsi chassis… This will make it easier to swap out the base computer for repairs or upgrades– many large web server farms use this tactic.

Keep different speed devices on separate SCSI chains, if possible.

High-end servers should have one device per adapter.

Use high end network interface cards

Now it’s almost standard, but get PCI network cards only.

All peripherals should permit upgrades

Devices with FLASH memory or at least EE-PROMs are best, followed by ROMs which must be physically swapped.

This is especially important for modems, ISDN/xDSL adapters and routers, and IP switches.

Use external components when possible

For example, use external modems, not internal ones for desktop machines. (This does not apply to portables, of course.)

Get the best monitor

Be kind to your eyes.

A desktop LCD (such from ViewSonic) is easiest on the eyes for long duration viewing compared to a CRT based monitor.

(Still, remember to blink.)

For programming and text writing, they’re wonderful.

For graphics work, be careful to not get too large of a viewable screen without increasing the resolution; otherwise, you’ll notice that the pixels don’t bleed/blur enough to make the image `work' for you (i.e., suspension of disbelief, etc).

Get a good keyboard and input device

Be kind to your fingers, hands, and wrists.

If you taught yourself to type, you probably learned using your fingers on an angle with wrists comfortable. So for you, the “natural” keyboards are bad in this case. (I learned this the hard way.)

Get a good chair/desk setup

Be kind to your back.

The best chair I’ve found is Herman Miller’s Aeron. [That was from 1994, long before this became an icon of tech start-ups.]

However, the very best thing to do is just sit on a mat on the floor.

The point is our bodies aren’t meant to sit in one position for hours. By being on the floor changing position every five minutes like a child playing, you will become more limber.

I’ve found the Curtis KD1 keyboard tray mounts nicely on an IKEA 20" tall coffee table, making a great desk. The keyboard sits 12 inches from the floor, and the monitor is at perfect viewing height for me (6’1” tall). Though, I had to get creative with the mounting hardware.

See The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design by Galen Cranz, PhD; Copyright 1998; W.W.Norton Publishing. ISBN 0-393-04655-9 Seen on the shelves at Barnes & Noble Art/Design section; Look for the humorous cover art of a clawfoot chair reaching out.

In an office, Galen recommends using a tall desk and a stool. Perhaps with a regular desk, you could bring in a wide, sturdy coffee table and pad to effectively raise the floor. Get creative.

Final Thought

With all that said, a question raised earlier must be stated again.

How much is your time worth?

It’s might not be worth your time to assemble a machine or to deal with potential hardware/software conflicts. That’s fine.

At the very least, make sure any machine you do order as a complete system adheres to most of the rules above. This is especially important for selection and capacity sizing of RAM, CPU, and disk.

Copyright © 1994-2000 Daniel Joseph Pezely
May be licensed via Creative Commons Attribution.